Bookmarks Issue: 

A Personal History

A-Discomfort ZoneThese six essays, several previously published in The New Yorker, follow the author from childhood ("Two Ponies") to adulthood. In between, he suffers through adolescence and explores his clumsy attempts at fitting in ("Then Joy Breaks Through"). College, yearning for companionship, a failed marriage, and a hobby as a bird-watcher ("My Bird Problem") offer equally compelling insights into the author’s personal history. In the opening essay, Franzen returns to St. Louis to settle his mother’s estate after her death. Combining acerbic wit, confession, and a trademark style that weaves familiar images into emotionally wrenching scenes, Franzen distills the energy and ambivalence of his best-selling novel, The Corrections, into snapshot images of the writer as a complex and conflicted man.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 195 pages. $22. ISBN: 0374299196

Cleveland Plain Dealer 4 of 5 Stars
"Franzen offers a memoir, The Discomfort Zone, a brief, beautifully crafted account of some of the formative events and influential people in his life. … As you turn pages, as images reappear in fresh contexts, as the poignancy accumulates, you realize you’ve been moving along a silken pathway designed by a very bright spider." Daniel Dyer

San Francisco Chronicle 4 of 5 Stars
"It won’t be news to anyone who’s read The Corrections that Franzen is a beautiful stylist. The Discomfort Zone is a book that could have been written only by someone who has grown more comfortable with himself." Heller McAlpin

Christian Science Monitor 3.5 of 5 Stars
"For those put off by the protagonist of The Corrections, don’t even try to go here. … But for those who admire the razor-sharp jabs Franzen makes at himself and anyone else standing too close, The Discomfort Zone is both a delicious read and a clever showcase for Franzen’s talents." Marjorie Kehe

Philadelphia Inquirer 2.5 of 5 Stars
"This is humorous material, but the buildup can be grinding. One can only hear so much about Franzen’s drastic adolescent nerdiness, his passive-aggressive attempts to meet girls, his anxiety, his political anger, his college-era mind-meld with heavy German authors, before his discomfort in being himself becomes our own." John Freeman

Minneapolis Star-Tribune 2 of 5 Stars
"I loved The Corrections, but this memoir has less of the blazingly great writing and more of the depressingly familiar Franzen trademarks. … Franzen’s own intense self-consciousness is perhaps better suited to the imagined terrain of the novel than the remembered one of the memoir." Claude Peck

New York Times 0.5 of 5 Stars
"Mr. Franzen turns his unforgiving eye on himself and succeeds in giving us an odious self-portrait of the artist as a young jackass: petulant, pompous, obsessive, selfish and overwhelmingly self-absorbed." Michiko Kakutani

Critical Summary

Jonathan Franzen, the National Book Award–winning author of The Corrections (and, infamously, the only writer to refuse initiation into Oprah Winfrey’s book club), leaves few readers ambivalent about his work, be it through his seriocomic attitude toward life’s uncomfortable moments or the difficult issues that he tackles with exuberant irreverence. Even the critics who admire Franzen’s writing warn readers that they are in for much of the same incessant, almost obsessive, examination that characterized The Corrections. Other critics dismiss the work as the ramblings of a postadolescent malcontent. In any case, the essays are cautionary tales for Franzen’s baby-boomer generation, many of whom would only reluctantly admit to sharing the author’s worldview.